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Samsung Captivate Review

by The Review CrewAugust 6, 2010

Introduction
Captivate is Samsung’s new Android powered smartphone for AT&T, and along with T-Mobile’s Vibrant it’s the first of the Korean phone maker’s “Galaxy S” devices to hit a US carrier. Featuring a 4″ screen with Super AMOLED technology, a super-quick 1GHz processor, and Android 2.1 OS paired with Samsung’s own TouchWiz 3 user interface, Captivate is the first true iPhone alternative for AT&T users. Android lovers will hate me for making the Apple comparison yet again, but it’s true: Walk into an AT&T store and now you’ve got a similarly-sized, similarly state-of-the-art smartphone to pit head-to-head with iPhone 4 in the battle for your phone budget dollars.

Lightweight, distinctively styled, and outfitted with a huge display, HD video camera and a powerful mix of business, communications and social networking software, Captivate is a high-powered piece of technology. While I’m not a fan of a few of Samsung’s choices regarding their custom skin and software widgets, in general I think they did a nice job of trying to bridge the gap between showcasing Android’s flexibility and power and also delivering an easy-to-use consumer device loaded to the gills with features and communications tools.

Design and Features
The original Galaxy S looked a lot like an iPhone. A lot. From the rounded-corners rectangular design to the wide-bezel touchscreen front panel to the grid of icons UI, it was hard to look at S and not think, “Samsung’s iPhone killer, eh?” While T-Mobile chose to retain that original Galaxy’s styling, AT&T went a different route with Captivate, giving it a more angular style with a few distinctive touches. I’m not a huge fan of this phone’s styling, but that’s a pretty subjective matter that you can judge for yourself. I will say that Captivate’s trick battery panel mechanism is pretty neat, even if I couldn’t figure it out without the help of another review friend.

Like I said when Samsung unveiled the first Galaxy S phone back in April, 4″ just might be the screen size sweetspot for the new generation of superphones that’s invading the cell phone world this summer. Apple’s iPhone has a 3.5″ display and HTC’s Evo 4G and Motorola’s Droid X have 4.3″ screens, but for my money Samsung hit it right on the nose with the 4″ display found on AT&T’s Captivate and the rest of the Galaxy S family. Captivate’s display is noticeably larger than iPhone’s, which should help it attract attention on store shelves, but still small enough to make the device plenty light and pocketable overall.

Weighing just 128 g (4.5 oz) and measuring 106 x 64 x 10 mm, Captivate is indeed plenty light and pocketable. Some may say that the phone also feels plasticky and cheap, which I’d be hard pressed to argue with. Then again, Captivate’s design adds just enough heft and texture to make it feel a bit more sophisticated and solid than either the original Galaxy S or T-Mobile’s Vibrant.

The front of the device is dominated by that 4″, 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display, which is flanked by the standard four-button row of touch-sensitive Android controls. The top of the device features a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microUSB port covered by a neat sliding plastic door, and there’s a rocker switch on one spine of the phone and a lock/power button on the other. You get a 5 megapixel camera with HD video capture (but no flash) on the back panel of the phone, mounted in one of two metallic grey plastic panels that flank the removable battery cover. Said battery cover is fashioned from some kind of composite material that feels like metal and is finished in a checkerboard pattern that I’m not really very fond of. Get the battery cover off and you’ll find a 1500 mAh battery, microSD card slot and SIM card slot lurking beneath.

Captivate comes with a USB cable, a modular charger, stereo headset, and manuals in its box. You also get a 2GB microSD card preinstalled in the device to compliment 16GB of internal storage. That’s more room for media and files than you’ll find on any other phone in AT&T’s line up save the 32GB iPhone 3GS and 4.

Samsung’s take on Android has evolved some over the past few years, and Captivate comes with the latest version of their TouchWiz user interface installed as part of the Android 2.1 operating system. As said before, TouchWiz makes Android look a lot like iPhone’s iOS, with similar looking icons arranged into a similar looking grid with a similar looking four-icon dock at the bottom of the home screens. The result is a user experience that’s arguably more novice-friendly than standard Android, but also arguably less attractive. Personally I’d argue in favor of plain ol’ Android 2.1 (better yet, 2.2) instead of TouchWiz, but custom skins seem to be the current favored method of making your Google Phone stand out from the pack, so I guess we have to live with ‘em for the time being. A 2.2 “FroYo” update has been promised in the coming months, no doubt with TouchWiz 3.x still firmly in place.

Usability and Performance
The first Captivate that Samsung sent me was plagued by malfunctions that kept sending me back one screen or out of apps entirely, and eventually had the front-panel buttons flickering on and off like a faulty set of Christmas lights. Samsung swapped that one out for a new unit that’s performed like a champ since Day One. Apparently a very small number of Galaxy S devices have suffered from similar problems, and everyone I’ve spoken to has reported no problems exchanging their phones for new ones in proper working order.

That said, Captivate is an excellent smartphone. One of the best on the market, even. Reception and call quality have been solid during testing in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, CA, and the phone functions equally well via “normal” speaker, speakerphone, or wired/wireless headset. Samsung has a deadly, deadly combination going here with their multitouch Super AMOLED displays paired to their zippy 1GHz Hummingbird application processors. Captivate moved from app to app, from pinch to zoom, and from still photo viewing to video playback with nary a hitch of the sort that give most Android phones the hiccups. Battery life was even decent given the size and brightness of that display – I regularly got through the day without having to recharge the device before bed, which is on par with iPhone 4 and a bit better than HTC’s Evo 4G and Droid Incredible.

Media playback on Captivate was terrific – high quality video clips really pop thanks to the Super AMOLED tech, which is bright and vivid like AMOLED but more usable in direct sunlight. Photos and videos captured with Captivate are of above average quality so long as they’re shot in decent lighting – 720p HD video in particular was quite impressive – and they look stunning when viewed on the device. Built-in wired and wireless sharing makes it possible to zap your media to a PC or HDTV for family viewing, and a Samsung media store is coming soon to the entire Galaxy S lineup.

The obvious question, of course, is “Is this the best mobile phone display on the market?” My answer is No, but it’s second-best. iPhone 4’s display is smaller than Captivate’s, but it’s higher resolution and packs pixels in at a higher density, which to my eyes results in a richer experience when viewing text, graphics, and images/video. The same content viewed on Captivate has a wee bit more “pop” to it (colors leaping off the screen) but just a bit less sharpness and depth than on iPhone 4. On the other hand, I’d take Captivate’s display over any of HTC or Motorola’s current offerings, hands-down.

Then again, because Captivate’s screen is physically larger than iPhone’s, it’s a wee bit easier to type on the Samsung than the Apple. Samsung’s soft QWERTY board is quite good, and you also get the stock Android QWERTY and Swype’s one-finger input method pre-installed on Captivate. While I still rate Motorola’s Droid X as the easiest touch-only phone to type on, I go back to that 4″ display sweet spot thing in saying that Captivate strikes a great balance between all of the pluses of a noticeably larger-than-normal display without too many of the minuses that come with a ginormous form factor.

Samsung’s custom software is interesting, if not altogether great. On the one hand you’ve got a pretty plain jane user interface that offers up seven home screen panels, live wallpaper support, a home screen dock and a bunch of extra widgets and apps, a few of which (Daily Briefing, Buddies Now) are actually kind of handy. On the other hand the look and feel of TouchWiz is way more cartoon-like than elegant, you can’t opt-out of the custom skin in favor of stock Android, some of the widgets are pretty half-baked, Samsung’s English language labels and dialogue boxes are full of weird diction and grammatical errors like, “And then you can see the new feeds on the idle by widget” (from the Twitter Sync dialogue). And the phone flat out refused to connect to my Mac in mass storage mode, though it did mount as a drive on my Windows laptop.

Beyond that, AT&T has locked Captivate down so you can’t sideload unsigned Apps onto the device. Ma Bell also saw fit to remove the standard Android Amazon MP3 store in favor of their own AT&T Music app. They also threw a bunch of AT&T bloatware – I mean, exclusive features – on the thing, including FamilyMap, Hot Spots, Maps, Navigator, Radio and YPMobile. Why would anyone use AT&T Navigator instead of Google Navigation? Seriously, I’m asking you. Please tell me.

Frankly, I’d love to get my hands on Captivate – or any Galaxy S phone – running a fully open, stock version of Android OS 2.2 with access to Samsung’s widgets to use or not as I see fit. Captivate is a great piece of hardware, and while it’s more than useable with Sammy’s software installed, TouchWiz doesn’t do much for me. But like I said, I can see the Android newbie or first-time smartphone buyer being attracted to Captivate’s colorful array of icons and iPhone-like dock.

Conclusion
Despite some questionable software decisions on Samsung’s part and some questionable “value add” decisions on AT&T’s part, I heartily recommend Captivate as a top-notch Android device. It’s also the best smartphone currently in AT&T’s lineup for anyone who doesn’t want an iPhone. Don’t take that to mean Captivate is/isn’t better than iPhone 4 – they both have their merits, they’re both excellent devices, and they both have the power to make their new owners very, very happy. Beyond that I’ll leave the judgement of “Which is the best?” to your individual tastes.

That said, Captivate’s brilliant display is great for media consumption, big enough for decently comfortable typing, and responsive enough for easy pinch-and-zooming your way around Web pages and photo galleries. With 16GB of onboard storage, an above-average camera with HD video capture, and easy syncing to your Google account and social networks, Captivate offers a compelling option for folks with particular – and varied – smartphone wish lists. If only AT&T wouldn’t lock the darn thing down so tight. At least they kept Google as the search engine this time, right? Sorry, Backflip…

And, hey – if you don’t like the way Captivate looks you can get basically the same deal in a different package in the Vibrate over on T-Mobile. Or wait a month or two for Sprint and Verizon’s Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G and Fascinate, to ship. Same phone, different looks, different carriers. Now isn’t that a novel concept?

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.